Urban Hip Movements

The word contact can mean either physical touch or communication; the choreographer Susan Stroman, who's the moving force (pun intended) behind Contact, wants to show it meaning both at once. That would be fine if she could bring it off, but her choreographic impulse beats her narrative sense every time. As a result, Contact is fairly diverting when it cuts a rug, but rarely makes much contact with anything deeper. (And its constant striving to mean more than mere diversion-it's the kind of show that seems to whine at you, "Please call me a new art form"-tends to take the edge off the simple pleasures it provides.)

Each of Contact's three vignettes is based on a now - you - see - it - now - you - don't gimmick. The first, "Swinging," turns a Fragonard painting of a girl in a swing into a sexual picture puzzle: Is one of the two men the weak master and the other the studly servant, or is it all a lewd game in which they perpetually switch positions? Stroman's choreography, which includes some fairly breathtaking gymnastics for Sean Martin Hingston, is effective, but the piece has the faintly stale tone of genteel softcore porn-Oh! Calcutta!in britches and petticoats.

The longer second piece, "Did You Move?," is just as gnomic in its own way, despite the advent of spoken dialogue by John Weidman. The time's the early '50s. In a sedate Italian buffet restaurant in Queens, a piglike man who may or may not be Connected is giving his wistful wife, and the wait staff, a hard time over dinner. Every time he heads back to the buffet, leaving her with strict orders not to move, her mind drifts into balletic fantasies, to the accompaniment of kitsch from the classical top 10. (All non-Italian, oddly: Grieg, Tchaikovsky, the Farandole from Bizet's Arlesienne, etc.) During these musical seizures, she engages in torrid embraces with the maître d', enlists the whole population of the restaurant in her support, and ultimately imagines her hubby's death in a climactic shoot-out, only to find him still there and piglike at the final fade.

Mark Setlock in Fully Committed: Is he booking the tables, or turning them?
photo: Carol Rosegg
Mark Setlock in Fully Committed: Is he booking the tables, or turning them?

Details

Contact
By Susan Stroman and John Weidman
Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
239-6200 

Fully Committed
By Becky Mode
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
353-0303

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Even with dialogue, the TV-sketch material doesn't offer much beyond an excuse for dancing-certainly nothing in the way of motive or context. Why is the husband so aggressively rotten? Why hasn't the wife found a better defense mechanism? Maybe it's all really a Cold War allegory about the "inward migration" of Soviet artists or some such thing. Or maybe it's just an excuse for dancing. Stroman notoriously loves props and gadgets, and here she uses a whole kitchenware shop's worth: carts, trays, dishes, vases, rolls, bowls, tablecloths, breadbaskets-you name it. It's the "Romantic Atmosphere" dance from She Loves Me in excelsis-and as that suggests, a tad too much of a good thing. Lacking the support of script or score, Stroman's slapstick humor feels heavy. Her best moment is the Bizet Farandole, to which she sensibly choreographs something not unlike an actual farandole; the duded-up dinner patrons stomping it out like clog-shod peasants in a village square, with sweet Karen Ziemba at their center, make an irresistibly droll image.

There's no drollery in the lengthy final piece, "Contact." Remember Busby Berkeley's "Lullaby of Broadway" number in Gold Diggersof 1935, and how shocked you were, the first time you saw it, when the reveling crowd pushed Wini Shaw out the penthouse window? Well, Stroman apparently never got over the shock. In her version, it's a guy who gets danced to death-or doesn't, since she determinedly has it both ways. A producer of TV commercials (Boyd Gaines) has just won an award, but chooses suicide in his swanky loft over his own victory party. After several failed attempts-you can fill in the details of this vaudeville routine yourself-the rope breaks and he goes to a present-day "swing club" where people do '30s dances to music from most of the prerock decades, and a philosophic bartender-I kid you not, a philosophic bartender-gives him the courage to pursue the girl who's the cynosure of all male eyes. Of course, she only wants to dance and he can't, but that's just as well, since the rope hasn't really broken and she is, in fact, Death. Except that the rope has broken and she's just his sweet but mousy neighbor come up to bitch about his late-night noise. In my view, producers of TV commercials should all be hanged as air polluters, but Stroman takes her hero's quest in earnest. To her, he's just another little guy in search of his chance at happiness, and the moral of this ornate meet-cute is that you must never turn your back on life, as exemplified by swing dancing.

Fortunately, Stroman knows how to build a big, thundering-herd lindy, and make each of its couples excitingly different. Deborah Yates, doubling as the femme fatale and the mouse downstairs, lacks Ziemba's individuality, but compensates with zest and supple technique, easily matched by Stroman's first-class male ensemble. All of Gaines's considerable charm can't make the suicidal schnook appealing, but another of Stroman's ingenuities is to evade his limitations as a dancer by making him, in effect, the inanimate object that gets tossed around in his big confrontation with Yates. Is this a new approach to musical theater? Nah-it's just a dance concert for people who think Balanchine's Nutcracker is too highbrow.

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